Planning Grant: Engineering Research Center for Lignin Engineering, Analysis, and Research for Sustainable Technology (CLEAReST)

Grants and Contracts Details


Project Summary Overview The objective of this planning grant is to move towards a NSF-sponsored Engineering Research Center (ERC). The Center for Lignin Engineering, Analysis, and Research for Sustainable Technology (CLEAReST) will serve as a focal point for the scientific advancements required to develop lignin-first processes for biomass conversion. Formation of the ERC is inspired by the global need to find renewable replacements for aromatic petrochemicals to sustainably address energy, climate, and food security needs. Lignin, a biopolymer found in all plants, is the only renewable source of aromatic chemicals, but is difficult to effectively utilize because of its complex, heterogeneous structure. Breakthroughs in science and engineering of lignin will be cultivated by pursuing five parallel, intertwined missions. First, the fundamental rules of life governing lignin biosynthesis will be uncovered and engineered to create plant feedstocks able to be deconstructed into valuable building blocks without loss of food value. Second, dedicated analytical tools will be assembled to provide comprehensive characterization of lignin all the way from plant cell to final product. Third, the science of lignin deconstruction will be advanced to provide efficient ways to convert a given lignin source to the most suitable set of intermediate chemicals. Fourth, discovery-based applications of lignin-derived products will be advanced by developing structure-property relationships for well-defined lignin molecules. Finally, the systems thinking and convergence research- driven advances in lignin science of CLEAReST will be used as a platform for recruiting a diverse cohort of students and providing education, outreach, and knowledge transfer to an interdisciplinary scientific workforce. Relevant NSF divisions for this work include the Division of Chemical, Biological, Environmental and Transport Systems (CBET), Division of Chemistry (CHE), and Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MBC). Intellectual Merit The intellectual merit of the project will stem from integration of four key scientific missions where breakthroughs are sought that will advance integrated lignin science from its initial biosynthesis in plants to structure-property relationships in products after its valorization. These missions are interlinked, as breakthroughs in understanding lignin deconstruction and transformation to new products will lead to new targets for transgenic plant modification. An overarching theme of CLEAReST research will be lignomics, i.e. sequence-specific understanding of structure-property-function relationships to advance biochemical understanding, and to develop novel applications and products derived from lignin. This planning grant will define high-impact engineering science targets within the four missions of CLEAReST by bringing together potential collaborators and stakeholders for two workshops. The first will be dedicated to defining key scientific questions and engineering bottlenecks among stakeholders and researchers in the lignin community. The second will lay the framework for developing and submitting a full ERC proposal. Broader Impacts Worldwide, there is growing recognition that utilizing lignin as a renewable source of aromatic chemical is an essential technological part of fighting climate change. By making scientific advances in its core scientific and engineering missions, CLEAReST will lower technological barriers to realizing this goal. This will be accelerated by cooperating with global lignin science partners and industrial leaders to address the most relevant problems in lignin processing. The Center also includes a mission dedicated to expanding participation by underrepresented groups in its research activities, and using the systems thinking associated with lignin-first biorefining as a platform for curriculum development, teacher training and development of new high school internships designed to increase participation in science, technology, agriculture, engineering and math (STEAM) disciplines. To move towards these goals, the proposed planning grant includes travel of core team members (primarily the PI) to NSF for cohort meetings, for a site tour of an existing ERC, to leadership training workshops, and to scientific conferences related to lignin processing. The project includes an effort to strengthen ties with social science researchers to equip CLEAReST to better understand the economic, educational, and social implications of expanding the biorefining concept in rural communities to move towards decentralized processing of lignin as a renewable source of aromatic chemicals, pharmaceutical precursors, and advanced materials.
Effective start/end date9/1/214/30/23


  • National Science Foundation: $100,000.00


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